Buying and selling a property in France can be quite daunting if you are not familiar with the French administrative procedures. They are rather lengthy and time consuming, hence my decision to expand on this subject with a view to help you understand the steps involved. I am well versed in this field as I bought a property in Brittany in 2000 and have also been assisting Anglophones in the buying and selling process since I started my business in 2004.
You have finally decided to take the leap and purchase a property either as your main residence or as your holiday home. But where and how do I find that perfect house?
How to find your dream property:
There are various ways to search for properties in France. They are:
the internet, through French property/ real estate agencies or “immobiliers” as they are known in France.
visit local property agencies if you have set your minds on a particular city, town or region.
- Notaries or “Notaires” also market properties. You could visit their offices or their website. Do note that they may also have a list of properties for auction.
- You could also hire my services because English is not yet widely spoken. Based on your requirements I am able to send you a list of properties or put you in touch with reputable agencies.
I would like to stress on the importance of going through a good agency registered with the national real-estate organisation FNAIM . However, I recently had a problem with a branch of a reputable agency. The said branch, which I shall not mention for ethical reasons, presented a mandate to my client who wished to sell his property. I noted several irregular clauses potentially costing tens of thousands of Euros to my client. The said branch mentioned that it would not be the case even if stated otherwise in black and white!
My client therefore decided not to work with them, proving that is is important to seek professional help before signing such documents.
If you are keen on visiting a property but are unable to do so:
I am in a position to visit it on your behalf, take photographs and send you a report of my findings, including the pros and cons and possibly the type of work required to make it habitable or to upgrade it to the norms. I am not a surveyor but having project managed many renovations and new builds, my team of experienced and local tradesmen have shared their knowledge of the various problems that properties in Brittany could encounter. This is particularly helpful if you do not have the time and would like to ensure that it is the right property for you before visiting the shortlisted properties.
Mandates to visit properties:
Prior to visiting properties with an estate agent or with a Notary’s property agent, you would be obliged to sign a document whereby, should you wish to purchase the property, you promise to go through them and not negotiate directly with the owners.
There is no mandate if the property you wish to visit is being sold by an individual. Leboncoin, for example, is a very popular website in France for buying and selling all kinds of things but I would advise you to take extra precautions if you are dealing with individuals as not all sellers are honest!
You have shortlisted a few properties:
If you are dealing with a property agent, you will receive all the important information and diagnostic reports relating to the property.
The main report is the DPE or the energy performance diagnostic which gives a rating from A (best) to G based on the presence or absence of insulation materials and heating systems used in the property. For holiday homes, it is common to find no ratings due to the lack of electric bills on a full time basis. However, this will shortly change as diagnostic companies are obliged to give a rating from July 2021 onwards. This new report shall be valid for 10 years.
The other diagnostics checks are for the presence of lead, asbestos, wood boring insects like termites, electrical and gas installations (required for installations older than 15 years) etc.
It must be said that inland Brittany does not have a termite infestation problem compared to the coast. However, most old Breton stone houses have traces of wood worm (“vrillettes”), be they big or small. A specialist informed me that they could nest in the woodwork for over 50 years. However, wood rot is a serious matter to check for and if detected, I would advise clients not to purchase the property. Most of these wood boring insects proliferate under damp conditions due to the house not being heated in winter, absence of ventilation and drainage systems and no regular airing.
To cite an example, one of my clients purchased his dream home, a fully renovated stone house, but when I visited it for the first time I had noticed a few flaws. I returned on site with my carpenter and mason and was told that there was wood rot everywhere in the old beams and lintels, but there also seemed to be an absence of drainage around the house.
Example of wood rot
Example of saltpetre
To pursue this issue, the client hired the services of a French surveyor who added that the electric installation was dangerous with no earthing, the plumbing was not to the norms and much more. His conclusion was that the house was dangerous to live in. After a long drawn Court battle against all the parties involved in the sale, my client managed to get the sale annulled.
You therefore can not solely rely on the diagnostic reports.
Example of damp on walls and floor
In Brittany, for example, many old stone houses, especially those that are not lived in, have damp problems.
It is therefore necessary to check that the land surrounding the house is well drained, and that the guttering system is in order or else in time you will see damp patches and saltpetre on the internal walls.
For all the reasons given above, it helps to also have a knowledgeable third party to check that the property, documents and procedures are in order.
You have found your dream property:
Apart from verbally informing the property agent of your offer to purchase the property, you may also be obliged to submit a written document to the property agent stating that you would like to offer EUR ______ . It is quite common for purchasers to offer a reduced price for negotiations to ensue. It would be wise to give reasons as to why you consider the property to be worth less, eg. work and costs involved to render the property habitable or to upgrade to the norms.
“Compromis de vente” or Preliminary Sales Agreement:
Once the price has been decided, the property agent or the Notary drafts a “compromis de vente” or a “promesse de vente”. A “compromis de vente” can be made by property agents and notaries and is therefore widely used. The document mentions your personal details, details about the property, the selling price, the agency’s fees and all the conditional terms of the sale, including a 10% (or less upon mutual agreement) deposit of the price. This deposit amount shall be deposited in an escrow account and shall be deducted from the amount due on the day of signing the Title Deed.
The usual conditional clauses would be the following:
obtaining a mortage/bank loan to finance all or a portion of the purchase
obtaining a pre-operational planning certificate for your renovation or building project.
The above two are detailed further on.
The following documents are attached:
– technical diagnostics of the property depending on the construction/ renovation date and its geographical situation such as pollution risks, presence of lead, asbestos, termites or wood boring insects, gas or electric installation (more than 15 years old) and energy performance (or the DPE as mentioned earlier).
The “compromis de vente” is therefore a very important document which would be worth translating if you do not understand technical French.
It is worth noting that if the sale is to be held 18 months after signing the “compromis de vente”, the Notary is obliged to handle this procedure and not the property agent. On the contrary, the agreement shall not be valid.
Notary’s and Property Agent’s Fees:
Sign outside Notary’s office
Again, it is good to keep in mind that apart from the property agent’s commission, the legal fees and taxes could considerably increase the purchase price. Notarial fees are all quite up front but it would be good to check or negotiate your property agent’s fees as they vary from one agency to another.
Please note that you have the right to choose your own Notary, in which case if there are two Notaries handling the sale, that is, one for the buyer and another for the seller, they will work together and share the commission and expenses.
Another type of sign outside a Notary’s office
Withdrawal or cooling off period:
When the parties have signed this agreement, the buyer has a 10 day period to withdraw from the sale as per the French consumer law which came into effect on 8th August 2015. Should the 10th day fall on a public holiday, the period shall be extended until the following Monday. To withdraw from the sale, you would need to send a registered letter to the agent or to the Notary, depending on who undertook the “compromis de vente”. Your paid-in deposit shall be reimbursed within a maximum period of 21 days from receiving the notice and no penalities shall be incurred.
Could the buyer still withdraw from the sale after this withdrawal period?
Yes, but on condition that one or more of the conditional clauses mentioned in the “compromis de vente” or preliminary sales agreement have not been met during the stipulated period.
After the Withdrawal Period:
If the buyer does not exercise his right of withdrawal, the sale becomes binding and the Notary would thereafter have the task of checking with the land registry and other Government offices, as well as obtaining all the documents relating to the sale. This normally takes about 2 to 4 months depending on the procedures involved and the conditional clauses mentioned in the “compromis de vente”.
Conditional clauses to the Preliminary Sales Agreement:
Here are a few examples of conditional clauses which protect buyers. If any of these conditions are not met, the Buyer can withdraw from the sale without incurring any indemnities and his deposit will be refunded within 21 days.
If you require a bank loan/ mortgage:
the process is longer as the buyer would be obliged to seek one or more quotes from financial institutions and sign a loan offer within a month at the earliest, although the timescale can be extended. This is an important conditional clause to add in the pre-sales agreement. French law protects the buyer as the sale could be annulled with no indemnities if the buyer does not obtain a loan/mortgage during the given period.
On the other hand, if you do inform the Notary that you do not require a loan, you are obliged to write a standard text on the “compromis de vente” whereby should you finally require a mortgage/loan, you shall not be covered by aforementioned law.
If the property is located in an agricultural area:
the official body SAFER has the pre-emptive right to purchase the property at the selling price and thereafter sell it on to farmers. However, it is worth noting that they only purchase around 15% of such properties.
If the property is located in a town, in a listed area or near to a historical monument:
the Mayor has the pre-emptive right to purchase it for the commune at the selling price. However, he is obliged to give reasons with details of the project which are submitted to the Notary.
If you do not get a favourable reply from Planning for your pre-operational planning or a full Planning request:
As mentioned earlier, should you wish to undertake extensions or renovations to the property you intend to buy, it is advisable to add a clause whereby should you not obtain a favourable reply to your intended project from the Mayor, the sale could be annulled. You would need to submit forms and documents mentioning details of your intended project.
- If you were hoping to purchase the property through the sale of your current property did not materialise during the convened period:
If mentioned as a conditional clause, you can withdraw from the sale without any indemnities and your deposit shall be refunded.
- If the seller wilfully hid or omitted to mention latent defects or “vices cachés” in the property:
You have the right to either accept them (perhaps with some compensation) or annul the sale. Please note that if you have doubts about these latent defects, it is advisable to mention them as part of the conditional clauses.
If checks made by the Notary reveal that the property’s boundaries and access are not determined, and that there are rights of way and easements in favour of the commune or the neighbours:
the buyer has the right to accept the situation or to annul the sale. By way of easements and rights of way, I am referring to neighbours or the commune using your land to get access to other lands. If the property has a swimming pool, the commune has the right to use the water to extinguish a neighbouring fire.
Furthermore, checks could also reveal urban development projects planned in the vicinity. Again, you have the right to annul the sale.
Draft Title Deed given to me for translation or for interpreting purposes.
When all the contractual conditions and documents are obtained, the sale shall be finalised at the Notary’s office where the Title Deed will be signed by both parties.
This used to be the normal procedure until Covid restrictions were enforced. It is now quite common for a Notary to prepare a proxy / power of attorney to buy or to sell (depending on the concerned party). By signing it, you would give him or his clerk the authority to sign on your behalf, as well as to undertake all the required formalities leading to the sale. The power of attorney is generally a summarised version of the title deed.
However, it is highly recommended to obtain a draft copy of the Title Deed so as to be aware of all the terms and conditions. This document is given to the Translator or the Interpreter prior to the signing of the Deed. As this is an important document, I would not recommend using an online translation tool due to the specific legal terms applicable under French law.
It is also true that most Notaries prefer to have a Translator or Interpreter present during the signing of the Title Deed as they need to be certain that all parties have clearly understood the various terms and conditions. It is not unusual for a bilingual estate agent to undertake this task. However, caution is needed here because they are acting on behalf of the seller. Notaries therefore ask their non-French speaking clients (or those not fluent in French) to hire a Translator (in other words, a neutral party) to assist them. Do refer to my article on the subject.
Documents required by the Notary:
Apart from a copy of your passport and a copy of your birth and marriage certificates (they may need to be translated), the Notary also asks the Seller for his latest land tax or “taxe foncière” bill. Property agencies also ask for this document as potential buyers are keen to know how much tax they would be paying for the property. On the day of signing the Title Deed, the Notary asks the buyer to reimburse a portion of this tax to the seller. The Notary calculates the amount based on a pro rata temporis basis, that is, from the date of ownership until the end of December of the current year. It is only the year after that the tax authorities shall send the bill to the new owner.
If the property was renovated less than 10 years ago, the Notary asks the seller to supply him with the planning permission documents, as well as professional builders’ invoices. Professionals in the building trade are obliged to subscribe to a 10 year building policy guaranteeing their workmanship. A recent certificate of conformity for the sewerage system (if not mains drainage) is required. If the system is not in conformity, the buyer is obliged to upgrade the system within a year of purchase. If the property has a fireplace, the seller is obliged to submit a recent chimney sweeping invoice.
The Notary shall send you your Title Deed approximately 6 months later – when all the registration formalities have been completed and the Title Deed signed by the Land Registry.
However, it is to be noted that after signing the Title Deed, the Notary will give the Buyer and the Seller two certificates each confirming the purchase or the sale with details of the property. One certificate comprises of the the selling price, whereas the other does not. This certificate is particularly useful as it would be required by utility and insurance companies for your subscriptions.
Please note that you are required to insure the property on the day or purchase and to open accounts with the utility companies. For the latter, you would need to obtain the meter readings which are normally carried out between the buyer and the seller on the day of signing the Title Deed.
If at any time you lose a copy of your Title Deed, it is good to keep in mind that the Notary is obliged to keep copies of all Deeds for up to 75 years.
Watch out for my forthcoming article on the selling process!
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